“A recent survey that we did shows that 69% of people in India who are not connected, if you ask them why they’re not connected, what they say is that they don’t know why the Internet would useful for them”, Mark Zuckerberg explained today at the Internet.org summit in New Delhi. That’s why Internet.org is launching a contest to build apps that convince Indian farmers, migrant workers, women, and students why the Internet is valuable by offering localized content. This Innovation Challenge will award $250,000 prizes to the best app, website, or service that makes the Internet relevant to each of the four populations above.
The contest from Facebook-backed Internet accessibility partnership Internet.org could help millions of people recognize the value of the Internet, pursue access, and gain knowledge and opportunities that can help them get better jobs and improve their lives. That could in turn help Internet.org’s flagship sponsor Facebook gain new users that it can connect to the world.
During Zuckerberg’s keynote at the summit, he summarized the recent Internet access barriers report released by Facebook and McKinsey about the factors keeping 4.5 billion people offline. Zuckerberg touched on how Internet.org is using drones and satellites to provide network connectivity where it’s not currently available.
“I think there should be 911 for the Internet” Zuckerberg said, noting how in the United States, cell phones can call 911 in the event of an emergency even if they don’t have a mobile calling plan. Just as this basic service of access to police, ambulances, and firefighters is free, he thinks Internet access to health, education, human rights, and services like Wikipedia should be free as well.
The problem is the cost of data plans. Many people can’t afford the Internet, and if they can but haven’t grown up understanding its value, they might not be willing to spend their limited amount of money on a data plan. That’s why Internet.org is working with carriers to offer basic Internet services for free in countries like the Philippines, Tanzania, Paraguay, and Zambia. This project has already connected 3 million people to the Internet.
For example, Internet.org recently released its own app in Zambia which offers free access to Wikipedia, Google Search (but not click-throughs to the results), local health and civic information, Facebook, and Facebook Messenger. Through a deal with local carrier Airtel, these services are free, but people are charged to use the rest of the web, which scores Airtel new customers.
In the long-term, Internet.org could pay huge dividends for Facebook. While framed as a philanthropic initiative, if Facebook can be the first service people use when they get online, it will likely lock in new developing world users for its social network. Facebook will compete with Google, which also has its own Project Loon that uses hot air balloons to deliver connectivity.
Some might say business objectives taint the humanitarian goals of Internet accessibility initiatives. But if profit potential incentivizes tech giants and mobile carriers to empower people with the web for free, I’d call that a net win.